Mudwoman is dark even by Joyce Carol Oates standards. Oates is well known for novels featuring female leads that do not sense the physical jeopardy they are in before it is almost too late to escape it. Suddenly, these women - as intelligent and accomplished as they may be – recognize that they have wandered into a situation that could cost them their lives. The threat, though, usually comes from an evil or deranged man but, in the case of Mudwoman, all the damage is done by a little girl’s own mother.
When she is three, Jedina Kraek's mother decides to murder her and her five-year-old sister. Jedina is shaved bald as part of her mother’s religious delusions and tossed into a mud flat near the Black Snake River where her mother assumes she will drown in the muck. Against all odds, the little girl is found in time by a mentally handicapped local trapper and taken into the care of a foster family for several years. When the Neukirchens, a childless Quaker couple, later adopt her, Jedina (who had mistakenly claimed her older sister’s name, Jewel, when found) becomes Meredith Ruth Neukirchen.
“Merry” does her best to live up to the Quaker standards of her parents and becomes a model student, an overachiever who compensates for her insecurities by excelling at both academics and athletics. Secretly, however, Meredith applies for, and wins, the scholarship to Cornell that she believes will be her ticket to a new life far from stifling Carthage, New York.
Mudwoman is told in chapters that alternate between Meredith’s girlhood and her present life as the first female president of a prestigious Ivy League university. Now 41, and calling herself M.R. Neukirchen, Meredith lives alone in a spooky, “historic” house on campus allocated to the president and spends all of her waking hours on university business – much of it involving fundraisers at which she must impress potential donors with her administrative competence. Oates, herself a Princeton teacher since 1978, is very familiar with this world and she exposes its inner workings here in detail.
|Joyce Carol Oates (Source: Getty Images)|
Because so much of what takes place in the present happens entirely inside M.R.’s head, the book becomes a contrast between a realistic presentation of her childhood and the more surrealistic presentation of her present day circumstances. What happens when M.R.’s childhood demons intrude upon her present life is often painful to watch. When cracks begin to appear in her public persona, expect to be horrified by M.R.’s mental collapse while the university board of directors tries to contain the damage and deal with the problems she creates for the school.
Mudwoman is frustrating at times because Oates, who is a master of this writing style, wants her readers to be (at least temporarily) as confused as M.R. herself about what is real and what happens only in her dreams. The good news is that patient readers will find that most, but not all, of the answers are revealed by the end of the book. Even better news is that they will have spent so much time inside M.R.’s head that they will likely know and understand her as well as they do any fictional character they have encountered.
Although it makes for difficult reading at times, I highly recommend Mudwoman.